ROME – By any measure one chooses to employ, the papacy is among the most visible offices on the face of the planet.
On the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, for instance, Pope Francis’s combined following of 53 million, spread over his nine different language accounts, currently puts him in third place among current world leaders, behind only Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Joe Biden of the United States.
Given the spotlight perennially trained on a pope, you might think there would never be any doubt as to whether he actually said something, since someone is always listening … and anyway, if a line is erroneously attributed to a pope, the Vatican has more communications channels than you can shake a stick at to set the record straight.
Yet despite all that, one recurrent feature of the Francis papacy has been the occasional mystery – what the Italians would call a giallo, meaning “yellow,” after the color of paper on which detective stories here used to be printed – about what the pope actually said.
Just moments after his election in March 2013, for instance, a rumor began to make the rounds that when he was approached by the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies to put on the mozzetta, a red velvet vestment edged with ermine often worn by past popes, that he testily refused, snapping, “The carnival is finished!”
That was taken as a deliberate slap at the liturgical fashion under his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and although sources close to the new pontiff swiftly insisted that he never said any such thing, one can still find internet references to the alleged line today.
To take another example, there’s the infamous series of “interviews” Francis gave to the legendary Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, who died in July 2022 at the venerable age of 98.
Between 2013 and 2018, Scalfari, a self-professed atheist, had at least four substantial conversations with Francis. Every time he would later publish an essay quoting the pope as having said all manner of things, ranging from the idea that truth isn’t “absolute” to the startling claim that Hell doesn’t exist.
In each instance, a Vatican spokesperson would say that these were Scalfari’s reconstructions, not necessarily direct quotes, but no one ever disowned the alleged citations either, leaving the impression that Francis indeed may have said something along those lines, even if it was hard to know where the pope’s thinking ended and Scalfari’s began.
All this comes to mind in light of a new such mini-giallo that’s emerged this week regarding the content of a recent meeting between Pope Francis and roughly forty priests of the Diocese of Rome, which took place at a parish in the Villa Verde neighborhood on the city’s eastern outskirts.
In theory this was a private meeting, with no official recording or transcript, but the next day an influential Italian blog called Silere non Possum (“I cannot be silent”) carried a lengthy account of the session, complete with lengthy allegedly direct quotes.
Three lines in particular stand out in terms of news interest.
“You’ll say the pope is a Lutheran”: Francis supposedly said this in the context of discussing his pastoral approach to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, telling a story about a 60-year-old Italian woman who’d written him a letter explaining that she was in a second marriage and had children with her husband, but couldn’t take communion. According to the blog, Francis said he advised the woman to make a confession and then quietly go to another parish and take communion.
“Some may say that the pope is a relativist. Let it be a fruitful relativism.”: This line was allegedly delivered in the same context, regarding the divorced and civilly remarried.
“Anglo-Saxon culture. Those of us who are Latins, we have closeness to the people. Clericalism is an attitude that’s distant from the people.”: This line, which allegedly came up in the context of discussing the various demands priests often face from their congregations, would appear to suggest that the pope sees clericalism as a particular temptation of Anglo-Saxon clergy.
If the pope indeed said these things, it would shed interesting light on several aspects of his papacy. Whether he actually did so, however, is the $64,000 question.
For the record, Silere non Possum identifies itself as a blog founded by a lay Italian canon lawyer and expert on the Vatican penal system named Marco Felipe Perfetti. It clearly has good sources; major news outlets such as the Associated Press, for example, have quoted its reports on the abuse scandals surrounding ex-Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik.
On the other hand, even a casual reading of the site reveals a fairly strong anti-Francis editorial line. Moreover, because Silere non Possum is a blog rather than a news agency, it often doesn’t quote sources by name or provide a clear sense of where its information comes from, making it problematic to assess its credibility.
In presenting its new report, Silere non Possum interspersed the supposed quotations from the pope with its own derisive commentary – helpfully presented in each case in boldface type, so readers couldn’t possibly miss the editorial obiter dicta.
For instance, with regard to the pope’s anecdote about calling the divorced and remarried woman, the blog added: “A tip for pastors: From here on out, take Francis’s cell phone number and post it on the bulletin board, and he’ll solve all the problems.”
One struggles to escape the impression that the blog’s goal was to provide fresh reasons for its readers to get upset with Francis, without necessarily being overly scrupulous about verbatim accuracy.
On the other hand, if the pope never said anything even remotely like what the blog quotes, it’s hard to know why the Vatican wouldn’t say so out loud. A spokesman could simply state, “While the contents of the session were private, I can confirm that the comments attributed to the Holy Father are false.”
Instead, all we’re getting at the moment is a version of the standard “no comment,” leaving it unclear what exactly transpired.
A cynic, actually, might be inclined to conclude that Francis or his advisers are happy enough to have those lines floating around, framing public impressions of what the pope really thinks, without having to take direct ownership of them.
In any event, and until we get either official confirmation or denial, “the pope is a Lutheran” and “Anglo-Saxon culture” vis-à-vis clericalism now take their place alongside “the carnival is finished” and “Hell doesn’t exist” as celebrated non-quotation quotations, from one of the most epigrammatic popes of all time – so much so, in fact, that even stuff he may never have said is well on its way to immortality.